Nudging towards pro-social behaviour.

An influential study on the psychology of altruism and pro-social behaviour is The Good Samaritan Experiment, conducted by Darley and Batson in the 1970’s. In this classic study, seminary students were asked to give a brief talk in a building nearby. Some students were told that they were to give the talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan while other students were told that they were to talk about career prospects for seminary students.  Most importantly, the experimenters told some students they should hurry to the building (which neighbored the one they were currently in) as the guests there were expecting them a few moments ago.On their way to give the talk, each student (in the different conditions) encountered a person slumped over in the alleyway. The person had their eyes closed and was coughing occasionally, clearly in need of help. However, the students in the hurry induced condition were the least likely to stop and help, including those who had to speak on the Good Samaritan parable! (Darley & Batson, 1973).

To quote Darley and Batson (p.107)

Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!

Even when their mind was occupied with thoughts on religion and ethics (considering they had to speak on the parable), the students failed to help. An outside observer may be quick to judge the students as being hypocritical. However, the Good Samaritan study demonstrates the unavoidable power of the situation that causes often well-meaning individuals to act in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. Moreover, personality variables were found to be insufficient predictors of pro-social behaviour. Darley and Batson (1973) provided a number of explanations for the students’ behaviour- one being the possibility that their cognitive abilities were focused upon the next task at hand and another being that they faced a moral dilemma of fulfilling their commitment to help the experimenter, who was depending on the student to get to the talk on time, versus helping the individual in the alleyway.

Another interesting phenomenon in the literature on pro-social altruism is the bystander effect (Darley & Latane, 1968) – the tendency of individuals to experience diffusion of responsibility in a situation that requires their intervention.  For example, in the presence of others, individuals are less likely to help a woman who is calling out for help, as demonstrated in the tragically famous case of Kitty Genovese* (details in reference).

bystander effect

When trying to raise awareness or funds in support for a cause, a charitable organisation should consider the power of the situation. When an individual is in a hurry, their potential tardiness is enough justification for them to avoid a plea for a cause. Volunteers with petition boards, awareness brochures and donation boxes are more likely to garner attention in a park, a square or other areas where individuals are less likely to be occupied with the cognitive load of getting somewhere in time. Subway stations should also be avoided –the minimal time interval between trains induces the feeling of hurry. Train stations and airports, on the other hand, may be useful places to target as the time spent waiting is more, especially during delays. Targeting areas that are less crowded can also help avoid the diffusion of responsibility that is characteristic of the bystander effect. When an individual encounters a charity collector on a busy road, they are likely to walk past him/her with the justification that there is a high probability of someone else on the same road having the time and interest to show their support (there are so many people after all…someone is bound to care enough!). However, this should be implemented based on the kind of behaviour the charity is targeting (encouraging people to volunteer/donate/awareness) as in some cases, targeting crowded areas can increase the social desirability of helping.

Campaigns can also go digital- individuals often turn to mobile applications when they are cognitively less occupied (or when they want a break from cognitive load). Apps increase the ease of making a donation and make it possible for individuals to donate at any time. When you see an NGO’s poster about a hungry child in Mumbai, the emotion caused by the poster may inspire you to support the cause. However the effort required to telephone them/make a donation personally/log into their website may make you procrastinate (yes, these are effortful things). An app that requires just one click to donate/volunteer will capitalize on the emotional arousal caused by the organisation’s already established marketing efforts. Having an app to work with will mean that the main challenge for the charity will be to convince people to download the app (there are numerous exciting ways this can be done). Once the app is downloaded, effective nudges to encourage support can be designed within the app itself (such as linking to social networking sites, using incentives within the app, etc. Facebook, for example, has played a massive role in increasing organ donations). For volunteers, this marks the end of facing endless rejection on crowded streets and instead, serves as the start of an innovative online campaign.

An example of an app that went viral is the Movember Mobile app which used social networking to allow men to share images of ‘their most ridiculous facial hair’ with their circle of friends on the app. This way, Movember went beyond supporting the cause. When activity on Instagram or Twitter is generally low (there’s actual data on this), push up notifications about the charity’s latest event calling out for volunteers and support, might just garner enough attention to secure a slot on the user’s weekend agenda, especially if this occurs when they’re waiting at a boring checkout counter line/at the airport etc. Sometimes, a simple nudge is all you need to spread the love 🙂


P.S- You might want to make sure THIS doesn’t happen to your volunteers-

(click to enlarge)

bystander image 2

*Apple has a restriction on charitable donations. However there’s still scope for these ideas to be executed within Android, Windows phone etc. If charities find it hard to give customers the option of donating on the app, the app can still be used to get people engaged with the charity, by using it for things such as volunteer signups.


Contains Kitty’s story- Darley, J.M., & Latane, B. (1968) Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility . Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Contains The Parable of The Good Samaritan– Darley, J.M. & Batson, D. (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100-108.


Aerobic Exercise + Spandex = Love potion made in heaven?


Hopeless romantics would probably disagree with the aforementioned formula. What could love- a passionate, spectacular experience that makes many individuals think of candle lit dinners and moonlit walks- have to do with exercise in a gym? Realistically speaking though, the feelings you experience during your gym workout are quite similar to those you experience when you are attracted to, or in love with someone (*see Peter Salovey’s lecture on love, link pasted below article). A run on the treadmill is likely to make your heart beat as fast as when you first held your partner’s hand. This is because while the root causes of arousal in these two situations are different, the physiological reactions experienced during both are similar.

In 1974, Arthur Aron and Donald Dutton conducted a classic experiment in British Columbia. In what was later referred to as the ‘Rickety Bridge experiment’, one group of men were asked to walk on an arousal-inducing, narrow bridge-


Another group was asked to walk on a stable bridge. In both conditions, participants were met by an attractive woman at the end of the bridge, who requested each man to fill out a survey. She then gave them her number to call in case they had ‘further questions’ regarding the survey. It was found that the men who walked on the narrow, rickety bridge were more likely to call the woman later, to ask her out on a date! Aron and Dutton’s explanation for the men’s behaviour is based on Schachter and Singer’s (1962) two factor theory of emotion which states that “people search the immediate environment for emotionally relevant cues to label and interpret unexplained physiological arousal” (Cotton, 1981). Physiological activity caused by one source can often be misattributed as being caused by another source. The pounding heartbeats and sweaty palms that participants experienced while on the rickety bridge are similar to what is experienced when one person is attracted to another. In this case, the source of the misattributed feelings was the attractive woman.

Perfume/deodorant/hair gel and related brands often use attractive models in their advertising. It can be predicted that for these products, the brands that advertise the most on sports channels would probably benefit more than others, as sports channels are often the default channels aired in gyms and sports centers (where levels of physiological arousal are high). Consumption of caffeine also causes arousal by increasing heart rate and these adverts are likely to be effective when viewed in a coffee shop, or if they are aired at a time when caffeine consumption typically peaks (be it the morning coffee ritual or the nightcap).

“Arousal can make judgments of positive objects more positive and of negative objects more negative” (Storbeck & Clore, 2008, p. 1837).

“Consumers’ responses to a given object—for instance, an ad—may be more extreme or polarized if the consumers have been recently aroused” (Gorn, Pham & Sin, 2001 p 44)-

Arousal intensifies/polarizes feelings that are already generated by a target (Gorn et al., 1991). White, Fishbein, and Rutstein (1981) found that when arousal was induced through physical exercise, male participant’s liking towards a female target subsequently increased. In the context of advertisements, arousal is likely to heighten positive feelings towards an ad that already elicits positive emotions. If arousal polarizes emotions, advertisements that use attractive models would generate stronger positive responses when the viewers are in a physiologically aroused state. The increased heart rate and sweaty palms experienced whilst running on the treadmill will predictably make them perceive the model in the advert as being more attractive, than if they were exposed to it in a less physically aroused state. As a result, the attractive model is likely to be associated with the brand/product and therefore this should indirectly generate positive feelings towards the brand.

Arousal can also polarize negative feelings and this insight can be used by charities/activists to raise awareness on issues such as animal abuse, human trafficking and so on. When in a physiologically aroused state, viewing disturbing images of animals being killed for fur can make an animal lover even angrier (perhaps motivating them to sign a petition) than when they viewed the same images in a less aroused state. The fact that arousal polarizes emotions can perhaps also be used to explain why football fans’ aggression and violence intensifies during/after a game, as well as mob behaviour. My advice for the next time you have a stinker with your spouse – hide his/her gym gear and the house’s supply of coffee.

*The formula that forms the title of this article was taken (and altered a little bit) from this neat lecture by Yale’s Peter Salovey


Baron, R.S. Sexual Content and Advertising Effectiveness: Comments on Belch Et Al. (1981) and Caccavale Et Al. (1981) Dutton, D. & Aron, A. (1974).

Some evidence for heightened sexual arousal under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 510-517.

Gorn, Pham & Sin (2001).When Arousal Influences Ad Evaluation and Valence Does Not (and Vice Versa). Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(1), 43–55.

How two cherries and a lemon can make your wallet feel lighter.

You’re in a Las Vegas Casino, ready to call it a night after overspending your budget. Just as you are about to leave, your friend suggests using one of the slot machines. You decide to give it a try- a win on the machine would really benefit you. You need three cherries in a row to win. The machine gives you one completely unlucky run. You try again, with no positive results. Would you make a third attempt?

Assuming the same slot machine gives you two runs of cherries in BOTH the first and the second attempt, would you make a third attempt?

Years of research on the cognitive biases that affect gambling behaviour would suggest that you will be likely to give up in the first situation and persist with the same machine in the second one. This is because in the second situation, you experienced what is known as a near miss. The machine ALMOST gave you three cherries in a row and this ‘near-win’ gives you hope that you will be third time lucky.

When an individual faces an obstacle that prevents them from attaining a goal that was almost satisfied, they experience feelings that characterize near misses. One of the key contributors to persistent gambling, it was traditionally assumed that near misses are accompanied solely by feelings of frustration*. However, research over the years has shown that the motivating factor behind near misses include their ability to generate feelings of excitement and curiosity, which serves as encouragement to gamble more. Near misses have shown to be involved with the brains reward circuitry –namely the striatum and insula (Clark, Lawrence, Astley-Jones & Gray, 2009) and therefore, near-misses encourage gambling even in the absence of monetary reinforcement. Additionally, dopamine transmission may be enhanced as a result of near misses, as found by Chase and Clark (2010).

Near misses lead to increased optimism about future gambling outcomes. It has been suggested that near-misses evolved to help us stay motivated in activities that require real skill*. While gambling has proven to be motivated by near misses, it is an activity in which success is often determined by luck and chance (this excludes professional gambling). The illusion of control (IOC), an influential theory by Ellen Langer, which suggests that individuals have a tendency to treat chance events as being within their control, may explain why gamblers are motivated by near misses. The IOC is highly pervasive in the gambling environment and Langer found that gamblers often tend to attribute skill to their gambles. Examples of the IOC are when gamblers throw dice softly for low numbers and harder for high numbers (Henslin, 1967) or when they express more confidence when they throw the dice themselves rather than have it thrown by someone else. Superstitious beliefs held by gamblers also foster IOC- these include chanting the numbers needed to win the game in the hope that that very number will come up*.

If gamblers perceive gambling as an activity that involves skill, near misses are likely to motivate them to continue gambling. In this way, the IOC and near-misses together contribute to persistent gambling behaviour. The power of a near miss to induce an adrenaline rush in an individual can also be observed in wide ranging consumption behaviours- a tennis enthusiast with a limited budget would be more likely to consistently prefer buying tickets to a Federer-Nadal match, where a near miss for one of the players is more likely than in another setting.

Casinos are well aware of the cognitive biases that affect gamblers and tailor the gambling environment to encourage persistent gambling. Slot machines are pre-set to provide a number of near misses that will make continuing gambling seem more desirable. Casinos also capitalize on the pain of paying (see previous article) and gamblers’ use of tokens and coins that substitute money makes losing the money hurt less. Windows in Casinos are a rarity, making gamblers lose all perception of time. Given such ingenious design of the gambling environment, my bets are on a newbie gambler taking a while to realize that they’ve been deceived by two cherries and a lemon.

Chase H. W., Clark L (2010), Gambling severity predicts midbrain response to near-miss outcomes. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 6180-7.
Clark, L., Lawrence, A. J., Astley-Jones, F., & Gray, N. (2009). Gambling near-misses enhance motivation to gamble and recruit win-related brain circuitry. Neuron, 61, 481–490
Henslin, J.M. (1967). Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330
Langer, E.J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.
Reid, R.L. (1986). The psychology of the near miss. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 2, 32-39

Leave your cards at home.

Consider yourself  at a famous departmental store, where you chance upon a stylish pair of boots being sold for $79. You don’t really need new boots but they are beautiful and there’s always room for one more. Assuming you had the money, would you buy them?

Now imagine another situation where you happen to be in the same store on a new day. The sales man tells you the same pair of boots, actually worth $99, are now being sold for $79. If you had the money, would you buy them?

Assuming you decided to buy the boots in both circumstances, the latter situation would probably make you happier at the time of purchase, and for good reason, because you saved $20. Retailers are well aware of this feeling a discount or a deal on a product begets & unfortunately, some may act to exploit this very fact. One way of doing this is by using high initial mark up prices and then offering a discount, creating the illusion of a ‘good deal’. American retailer Macy’s was found inflating the price of a Cuisinart food processor, by quoting a regular price of $139.99 and a ‘sale’ price of $99.95. However upon further investigation, Cuisinart’s manufacturer reported $99.95 as the regular price of the food processor*.

Retailer JC Penney was a proponent of the aforementioned marketing strategy, until Ron Johnson was appointed CEO in 2011. Johnson believed the pricing policy followed by JC Penney took a consumer’s intelligence for granted. He soon replaced it with a radically new one that consisted of

1) removing the ‘fake marked up prices’

2) eliminating discounts and deals, thereby quoting fair, ‘everyday low prices’ and

3) eliminating the use of coupons.

While this may have been done in good faith, it caused JC Penney a $163 million net loss within the first quarter of implementing the policy*.If we were rational decision makers, we would always favour a pricing policy that maximised our gains and minimised our losses. However our behaviour often deviates from what standard economic theory deems rational. Behavioural economics gives us some insights as to why Johnson’s policy failed.By removing deals and offers, JC Penney eliminated the perceived scarcity that was associated with the products in question. One of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, perceived scarcity states that when people view something to be scarce, it generates greater demand.

Perceived scarcity drives sales. Attractiveness and desirability towards a product are enhanced by perceived scarcity*. Sales and discounts are usually offered for a limited period of time and therefore, one could say that sales are associated with perceived scarcity. While the product supply itself may be in abundance, the ‘deal’ is viewed as being scarce. In the JC Penney case, by making all merchandise either ‘Everyday saving’ or ‘Clearance’, the feeling linked to a unique deal was removed, therefore reducing the product’s desirability (believing that a product is worth more than what you bought it for is likely to add to its desirability). Moreover in this case, the consumer does not face any urgency to buy the product.

The removal of coupons was another major flaw in Johnson’s strategy. Behavioural Economist Dan Ariely emphasizes the concept of the ‘pain of paying’, which is the tendency of human beings to experience psychological pain when paying for a purchase. Interestingly, the pain of paying is greater when people pay by cash, than when they pay by credit/debit cards. Ariely posits that this could be because paying by cash makes parting with the money more salient and this increases the pain of paying. Coupons substitute cash and can be purchased in advance for later use, thereby making parting with the money less salient at the time of purchase. By eliminating the use of coupons at JC Penney, regular coupon users were likely to experience the pain of paying more often.

The next time you go to the shopping mall, leaving your cards at home and paying by cash might just help you avoid buying those beautiful pair of boots that you don’t really need. Shopaholic or not, I dare you.

To know more about the concept of the pain of paying, check out Dan Ariely’s video on the topic or read this interesting article

Some references for the JC Penney case-


Regular, Diet or Zero? Old News! John, Kate or Sophie? is more like it.

The Coca Cola Company is considered to be a marketing genius-for good reason. As a consumer, what typically comes to your mind when you think of the share a Coke campaign? Perhaps it’s that coke is trying to build on individuals’ need for personal relationships…or perhaps they are trying to capitalize on the emotional aspect of sharing a Coke? As for having your name on a  bottle, maybe Coke is trying to make you feel special?

If you’re human (and not a superior intellect orangutan who reads Karishma’s blog posts for fun) you are likely to be susceptible to what is known as the name letter effect, which is the tendency to prefer letters that are present in your own name. Individuals are typically biased towards stimuli that are associated with the self- names, which are most closely associated with one’s own identity- are one of them. This tendency to prefer letters that are present In one’s own name can be unconscious- you won’t typically find Adam openly professing that he has a fetish for the letter A.

Individuals can even acquire feelings of attachment to an object that resembles their own name. If people like objects that contain one or two letters of their own name, they are sure to LOVE an object that has their entire name on it! When you walk into a store and see a Coke bottle with your name on it, you are more likely to assign positive feelings to that bottle of Coke, over a bottle of fruit juice that has only one (or no) letters of your name on it! Therefore when buying a Coke for yourself, you’re likely to hunt down a bottle that has your name on it.

Our brains also seem to be biased towards information related to the self. Individuals typically have a better memory for information related to the self and Kelley et al., (2002) find that self-referential information processing activates different regions in the brain compared to other forms of semantic processing. If individuals remember self-related information more, could it be that a product that symbolizes YOU as a person will be more easily recalled in memory when thinking about products in general?

By encouraging people to ‘share’ a coke, the manufacturing giant also builds on the fact that giving is associated with positive emotions. Psychologists at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School find that individuals who have just spent money on others are more likely to report feeling greater levels of happiness compared to individuals who have just spent money on themselves. Encouraging people to share a coke is a smart way of promoting coke sales as at the end of the day, whether the coke is bought for yourself or your friend doesn’t really matter as long as it’s Coke you are buying and not Pepsi or Appletiser. At the same time, YOU as a consumer feel good if you just bought your bestie Rose a can with her name on it.

If only there was a Coke can with ‘Karishma’ on it….dayum! social isolation BITES 😦

*The study on money and happiness is credited to Dunn & colleagues (2008)
*To know more about the name letter effect see Koole & Pelham (2003)

Heineken will #drop you home

Before you get enlightened, watch this video-

Now imagine yourself in this situation- would you decide to drop everything for departure roulette?

Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, along with collaborator Amos Tversky, demonstrated that most individuals tend to be loss averse- typically, they would prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. This loss aversion then tends to lead to risk aversion, wherein people prefer to accept a bargain with a certain (but perhaps lower) payoff than a bargain with an uncertain payoff. While human beings are generally risk averse, what if risk seeking is portrayed as being socially desirable? In this ad, Heineken builds on key behavioural principles (which I will elaborate on soon), making impulsive behaviour appear socially desirable. The logic? My hunch would be that the newly acquired positive  feelings towards social risk taking and impulsivity will then lower inhibitions about alcohol consumption, which is associated with risk taking behaviour.

Social Norms and Conformity- In the ad, the number of individuals who are willing to commit to departure roulette is portrayed to increase after one man decides ‘Let’s go’. Individuals generally tend to conform to what those around them are doing- Psychologist Solomon Asch found that when asked to estimate the length of a line, most individuals conform to others’ estimates one thirds of the time, even when they suspect that it is wrong! By making departure roulette seem like the perceived norm in the airport at that very moment, Heineken also indirectly creates a perceived norm about risk taking behaviour in general. Whilst in reality there is no evidence that one ‘yes’ is followed by another, this is not made salient to a consumer viewing the campaign from home-to them, a series of positive responses towards the gamble begins to seem like the acceptable norm.

Social approval and inclusion- Social psychologists emphasize the influence that subtle cues in our environment have on our behaviour. Individuals are often ‘primed’ by objects in their environment and these primes typically affect behaviour. In the Heineken ad, the applause that can be heard in the background when someone commits to departure roulette serves as an indication that the acceptance of risk is viewed to be socially desirable- making more people want to ‘open their world’ (or rather, their minds). Once the social desirability and social approval associated with the gamble convinces you to say ‘yes’, a commitment bias is likely to kick in, making you feel compelled to go ahead with your commitment to departure roulette.

Risk taking leads to positive outcomes- The adventurous who accepted the challenge were rewarded with exotic destinations and incentivized with a budget expense. Overall, the portrayal of emotions experienced by the beneficiaries seemed to be quite positive. What is left for us to find out is if the man who received a ticket to Cyprus has been there numerous times before and is secretly wishing he had just stuck to visiting good ol’ mum (who by the way, sounded pretty pissed off on the phone).

Overall this is, in effect, an extremely smart way to promote Heineken purchase. If successful, the consumer should perceive taking a social risk as an action that is approved by the majority , with positive outcomes. However through this campaign, they ensure that this positivity towards social risks is associated with Heineken and not just any alcohol. The next time you’re in a pub and you see the Heineken logo, the chances of you associating it with impulsivity, after which you associate impulsivity with positive emotions, are very high. And that could be the underlying phenomenon that motivates you to reach into your wallet and ask the bartender to get you yet another pint of Heineken. Reality check- after one too many pints, the only place you will be getting ‘#dropped’ is on your couch back home (courtesy your risk/loss averse friend who just knows better…Heineken? …PFFTT!).

* Nudge is a concept (usually credited to Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein) in the behavioural sciences which argues that human decision making can be influenced by suggestion and subtle influences. Buy the book here (TOTALLY worth it).